If you were to ask a group of people what sport means to them, you’d receive a mix of answers. Its encompassing nature has the ability to bond, empower, and inspire regardless of social factors – so why is it that men and women in sport continue to be spoken to, and spoken about, very differently?
If you were to ask me about sport, my Mum would rank among the many inspirational women that participate in such activities. She is special to me for many reasons, as I’m sure many mothers and maternal figures are to those of you reading this. Her strength is seen in her ability to walk when she was just 10 months old, to her determination to outperform boys on sports day (mastered in velour tracksuits – it was the 80’s!), to attending football training whilst pregnant. Exercise has taken up space in my mum’s life immensely. I say taken up as if it’s an inconvenience, but prioritising something which is happiness-inducing such as sport, is something she’s unashamedly unapologetic about.
Sport England found that 61% of mums say they feel guilty for taking the time to exercise, with only one in five feeling like they could prioritise it. Apologising, along with self doubt, lies side-by-side with how attitudes to exercise are dictated. For me, these feelings peaked during adolescence, where I felt my femininity diminish from truanting P.E due to my period, to sweating profusely, and attempting to conceal my ever-present DD’s.
The national campaign, This Girl Can, aims to break down barriers that have stopped women from exercising. It has trailblazed since its birth in 2015 in the way it exhibits everyday women in its adverts rather than using elite athletes or models. It’s special in how it empowers myself, the women in my life, and the entire female population through dismissing stereotypes of women in sport and instead celebrating women of all shapes and sizes.
I see parts of myself, my mum, and many other women in This Girl Can’s recent campaign, ‘Rallying Cry’ – a call to arms to redefine one’s body by eliminating self scrutiny. A woman’s power should not be established by archaic standards of femininity, women can exist however they like without being designated to their looks and maternal capabilities.
A report by Women in Sport readdresses gender imbalance by showing how sexism is accelerated for those in sport that work behind the screens. The report investigated workplace culture in sport and found that 40% of women felt their gender negatively influenced how others valued them. Over half of the women interviewed also felt that they frequently had to work harder to prove themselves, and that their work was over scrutinised compared to male counterparts. Workplaces need to be doing more to create an environment where everybody can thrive.
While women in sport are rightly being recognised and celebrated, (the 2019 World Cup semi-final Lionesses game against the USA had the highest peak of television audience of that year), the way they are approached by mass media needs a cultural shift. Despite gruelling training and social sacrifices, role model female athletes continue to be at the forefront of systemic sexism. Inappropriate interview questions and commentary, coupled with comments on physical appearance and looks, only maintains the toxic system of categorising women based on their appearance. This was seen internationally in the 2016 Rio Olympics, where BBC Africa tweeted a now deleted article and photo captioned ‘Bikini vs. Burka’. This referred to Egyptian volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy’s choice of wearing a hijab (BBC Africa wrongly identified her choice of head covering) while competing against other female athletes that chose to wear sports beachwear.
While the 2020 Olympics will no longer be here to remind us of our female sport heroines, the diversity and scope of sportswomen proves to women everywhere that their goals are achievable. Your role model could very well be Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest British woman in recorded history, or the person who offers to be your partner in your exercise class when others have found theirs. It could be somebody that encourages you to take part in whatever brings you peace, and reminds you to not apologise for your sweaty post-run top, or the blood at the back of your pants. It is because of my mother’s ferocity and campaigns such as This Girl Can that I now see exercise as a recreational activity to enjoy, rather than a chore. I no longer feel the need to subtly sneak a tampon up my sleeve, or have a towel at hand to mask the first drop of sweat on my upper lip when working out. Physical activity in any form, accomplished by whoever, is worth celebrating. My mum and I are women that can, have done, and will continue to do so.
Written by Sophie Hall